Family has power cut off before being handed bill for nearly $12K

Imagine suddenly having your power cut off, despite always paying your bill, and being handed a new one for nearly $12,000. 

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – Jose Gaston and his family live in South Miami. 

"I haven't done anything wrong," Gaston said.

Michelle Lopez and her family live in Plantation. "This isn't our character," Lopez said. "This is not me." 

During the summer, Lopez and Gaston left separate messages with the Leave it to Layron team regarding very similar circumstances.

Florida Power and Light crews showed up at their respective homes, disconnected their electricity and handed them letters.

"It says that I tampered with their meter," Lopez said.  

"The meter was tampered with, and that I had done it," Gaston said.

The letters were almost identical and detail FPL's investigation into alleged meter tampering at Lopez's and Gaston's homes. Both homeowners also received adjusted statements that date back years. The higher bills accounted for the higher wattage their meters should have been registering.

Lopez was billed more than $8,300. Gaston's bill was more than $11,800.

"They're saying that they're smart meters," Gaston said. "It takes six years for those smart meters to figure out there's a problem? They're not so smart."  

Gaston told the LITL team he paid nearly $6,000 to have his power restored as soon as possible. He's now on a payment plan to pay off the balance. 

"And I'm talking to you to see if something can come out of this," Gaston said.  

Lopez said she was in the middle of Hurricane Irma repairs when her power was shut off. That work was forced to a halt. 

When the LITL team met Lopez, she and her family had been living without electricity for two weeks. 

She pointed to an outdoor grill on her patio that she said she used to make the family's meals. Just feet from the grill was a generator the family ran at night to power portable air conditioning units.

"This is our little routine," Lopez said, closing the door of her SUV. She started the engine and turned on the air conditioner, adjusting the vents toward her young daughter and the family's small dog. 

"I need them to fix it and resolve it," Lopez said. 

We contacted the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies. 

If a utility, FPL included, even suspects meter tampering, the company can take action, not only to investigate it, but to stop it. Utilities are also allowed to disconnect service without notice if meters have been tampered with, according to the Florida Administrative Code.

The LITL team pored over dozens of complaints that were filed with the PSC within the past year by other South Florida FPL customers after their service was cut and they were charged high bills in cases of alleged meter-tampering. 

Here is the full statement FPL sent the LITL team when we inquired about Lopez's and Gaston's bills: 

"As you may know, FPL privacy policies prevent us from sharing the detailed letters sent to the customers who have contacted you. However, I do understand that they have shared the contents of the letters and their stories with you. Those letters and the customers' stories do not provide all the information you need to tell a fair, accurate and complete story regarding these situations.

"At FPL, we take meter tampering and electricity theft seriously. During 2018, we investigated and fixed 4,400 meters that had been tampered. In that year, we identified that the equivalent of $4.5 million of energy was stolen through meter tampering. We work hard to serve all of our customers in the most cost-efficient manner possible. When someone tampers with a meter, it adds to our cost of doing business and that affects everyone's bills.

"In Florida, in a case of meter tampering, FPL may bill a customer a reasonable estimate of the energy diverted from the meter. Any back-billing is for the time period in which our investigation showed current was being diverted up to the maximum of 60 months, as well as a charge for the investigation and a meter tampering penalty. Please refer to the letters sent to the customers for specifics regarding their situations.

"Tampering with an electric meter is considered theft and is punishable by Florida law. Theft of electric services in Florida starts as a first-degree misdemeanor, but based on the amount, can quickly escalate to a third degree felony and, in extreme cases of more than $100,000, the sentence can be up to 20 years in prison.

"Meter tampering is not only a crime; it is extremely dangerous. Those who tamper with a meter and the customers who receive power from a tampered meter risk serious injury. Only licensed electricians and FPL crews should maintain or repair the meter, which is owned by the company, and the meter enclosure, which is owned by the customer.

"The letters that we sent the customers are based on the facts we gathered after our thorough investigation. As a regulated utility, FPL is required to follow the Public Service Commission guidelines when conducting meter tampering investigations. As we keep our customers' account information confidential, we cannot discuss specifics regarding these matters. Should customers have questions about the investigation, they should contact us at the phone number on the letter they received. I can tell you that FPL stands by the meter tampering investigations that were conducted in both cases."

"Right now, I feel like I'm David and this is Goliath," Lopez said. 

"They have us," Gaston said. "They have us, and we've got no choice."

Imagine suddenly having your power cut off, despite always paying your bill, and being handed a new one for nearly $12,000. 

Alexis Fernandez is an attorney with MSP Recovery, a law firm currently representing class-action claims against FPL. The suit claims poor storm preparation on FPL's part led to long-lasting, wide-spread outages after Hurricane Irma, despite customers getting charged a storm prep fee.

"One of the biggest issues is the fear of, 'I'm going after Florida Power and Light,'" Fernandez said. "'Do I even have the resources to do so?'" 

When it comes to allegations as serious as meter-tampering, Fernandez said a trial court can determine whether a meter, as a matter of fact, has been improperly replaced, tampered with, or altered for the purposes of stealing electrical power. 

"And you don't have to rely on the Public Service Commission to make that finding," Fernandez said. "You can ask a jury of your peers to make that finding."

That's what an appeals court found in Ramos vs. Florida Power and Light Company, ruling the PSC did not have exclusive jurisdiction over a case involving a farmer whose power was disconnected amid a meter-tampering investigation.

"The law really does justly apply to everyone, including a monopolistic power, like FPL," said Fernandez.

It wasn't until after Lopez contacted us, and we spoke with FPL, that a crew was sent out late one summer night to restore electricity to her home.

"You have been a blessing to me," Lopez said. 

Lopez has since filed a complaint with the PSC which looks into customer issues. Customers who are not pleased with their resolutions can bring their cases before PSC commissioners to decide during a scheduled conference. Lopez is also enrolled in a payment plan and weighing her legal options.

About the Author:

Layron Livingston made the move from Ohio's Miami Valley to Miami, Florida, to join the Local 10 News team.